A Zero Waste Q&A with our Northwest Family of Four

Exploring tide pools on nearby Orcas Island

Tell us a little bit about yourself and your family.

We are a family of four living in the beautiful Pacific Northwest, just north of Seattle. My husband and I fell in love during our years of travel and adventure, sand and sailboats. Now, a bit later in life, we find ourselves adventuring in a slightly different (but no less exciting) way... Living in suburbia with two kids, a cat, and our adorable, composting rabbit.

We live in a regular neighborhood but have a household that functions in a unique way. We produce significantly less trash than the average household, have converted much of our lawn into food-producing gardens, and lean toward a more minimalist lifestyle, focusing on creating experiences for our family rather than acquiring more “stuff and things” that tend to get in the way. You can find us hiking local beaches and forestlands (often picking up trash along the way), or at home, cooking and listening to jazz by candlelight.

The result of a five-minute beach clean on Whidbey Island

What inspired you to try your hand at being waste-free?

Like most great inspiration, mine came from a Facebook video. This particular video depicted a woman named Bea Johnson (of Zero Waste Home) and her California family of four, who were able to reduce their yearly waste so drastically that it fit into a mason jar! When I realized that they were not hoarding garbage in their garage, but lived a rather simplified and beautiful lifestyle, I was intrigued.

Raised with an appreciation for nature, I felt a strong connection to it from a young age. As a young adult my interest in sustainability increased, and during college, I took the opportunity to hear William McDonough, co-author of “Cradle to Cradle” speak about sustainable design. During later years, already toting a reusable shopping bag wherever I went, I sailed through the Caribbean and witnessed plastic pollution on even the most secluded beaches. I was bothered by this and surprised, because at this point, I was not yet aware of the vast impact that plastic pollution had had on our oceans.

When I encountered the idea of living a zero-waste lifestyle, I suppose you could say I was “low-hanging fruit” - ready for action and just not knowing what steps I could take to make a difference. This lifestyle of refusing packaging, shopping intentionally, and opting for reusables rather than disposables was something I could implement into my life right away. With some time and effort, I found a system that worked well for myself and my family. I was glad to adjust my lifestyle habits to reflect my values, and now, can’t imagine going back to the way we lived before.

Transferring rice purchased with a fabric drawstring bag

What prevented you from trying it sooner?

The moment that I learned of the zero-waste lifestyle I was hooked. Prior to that I had never considered that I should avoid food packaging, shop secondhand for environmental reasons, or switch to a metal safety razor rather that those horrendously overpriced disposable ones. I simply didn’t realize that there was another way.

Although I was concerned for the environment, I didn’t take personal responsibility for it. In my mind, the world’s environmental challenges were “out there” and too big for anyone like me to have a real impact. Now that I know better, I strive to do better.

Learning about slugs and snails with our homeschool nature group

What everyday challenges did you not expect going into this?

I am frequently challenged by the unnecessary items that come into our lives and find that with two children this issue is amplified. Freebie toys, promotional items, and gifts at every turn. It seems that there are endless seas of landfill-bound products marketed specifically to our children. (Do you feel me, parents?!) Ironically, though, I’ve learned that we are all happier with less. With simplicity. With classic, open-ended toys that foster imagination and creativity. I am doing my best to share my values with our children. After all, a large part of the reason I do this is for them. I care a lot about the legacy we are leaving for future generations.

Additionally, grocery shopping for package-free food can be a challenge. I’m willing to shop a variety of stores in order to do this, but do make some exceptions for my sanity (and I don’t beat myself up about failures). Attempting to live waste-free in our modern society is not always easy. But it is worth making an effort.

Harvesting strawberries in June at our suburban home

What’s the most outlandish thing you’ve done to help curb your waste?

At one time we were processing all of our own compost via a small flock of chickens and two compost bins in our backyard. The only compostables that I didn’t have a solution for were chicken bones, and on a couple of occasions I burned them in our backyard fire pit. (Yes, really.) When my neighbor complained of the smell I was mortified. These days, all of our compostables go into our yard waste bin for weekly pickup, bones and all! It’s the best solution for our family as well as the neighbors.

Zerowaste pantry items ready for making a batch of granola

What’s the biggest thing about living a waste-conscious life you want others to know?

I want everyone to know that there are countless, simple ways to make a difference! Small changes really do add up.

You can choose to:

  • Use bar soap rather than liquid soap that requires a plastic pump

  • Wash your dishes with a dishcloth or a biodegradable tampico brush rather than those bacteria-riddled, disposable sponges

  • Use vinegar and water to clean instead of harmful chemical products

  • Bring along your own coffee cup rather than accepting the ubiquitous disposable cups offered at most coffee shops

  • Carry a fork and spoon with you to avoid single-use plastics

  • Shop with a canvas bag, a basket, or even a cardboard box! There is no shame in using what you already have

  • Skip the produce bags – your potatoes will be ok

  • Ditch the toxic dryer sheets and use wool dryer balls instead

  • Use a refillable water bottle

Becoming more waste-conscious doesn’t mean that you aren’t going to produce waste (and that you have failed if you do). To me, it is a different mindset that steers you toward sustainability when you consider your options. Let’s all live less out of habit, and more out of intent.

Do you have any tips or tricks for people looking to curb their waste during the holidays?

The holidays are abounding with opportunities to creatively reduce waste!

Ideas for gift-giving:

  • Give gifts of experience: tickets to a play, a hike to your favorite location, or a bonfire on the beach with family.

  • Share your talents! Are you an excellent cook? Offer a cooking class to your family members. It will create a memory that is sure to last.

  • Purchase one quality item that will last a lifetime versus several of lesser quality. Bonus points if the item is sustainably made.

  • When wrapping gifts – use materials that are recyclable and/or biodegradable. Better yet, wrap gifts furoshiki style with a reusable cloth.

  • Ask your family members what would truly be useful to them.

  • Gift ideas for kids: a membership to the science center, the zoo, or another favorite attraction. Movie tickets and a special night out.

  • Give gifts that are of good quality and will be used for many years, rather than plastic items that break easily and end up in the trash.

When decorating for any holiday I prefer to use items that are made of natural materials. Think paper, glass, wood, and items found in nature like branches of winter berries and fragrant cedar boughs.

Brushing with a compostable toothbrush during a recent camping trip

Get creative and look around for sustainable options whenever making a purchase (no matter how small).

And always, always, ask yourself this vital question:

“What will happen to this product at the end of its useful life?” If your answer is landfill, be open to considering alternatives.

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